Thursday, 27 November 2014

Potterisation II - cliché becomes history

 Some people have said they can notice the inaccurate language and anachronisms while still enjoying films like, for example, "The Imitation Game". I can to some extent but I get annoyed because the language is just a symptom of the Potterisation syndrome. This goes deeper and involves over-simplification, sentimentalising, stereotyping and making crude.

 In this film it leads to a falsification of an important part of British and computer science history and, as several articles have pointed out, does not do justice either to a great mathematician or, indeed, to the whole Bletchley team.

Potterisation - The Imitation Game

 Why did "The Imitation Game" make me cross? I was looking forward to it and I find Cumberbatch a compelling actor. It was the American English that (no - correction) which (BrE) alerted me to what I will call the (Harry) Potterisation of British culture.

One of the Turing character's first lines is: "I could really use (something) right now." Oh no, here we go. Soon we have schoolboys at Sherborne School in the 1920s talking American English: "We are the smartest students in the math(s) class." (Ok, they drew the line at calling it "math" there and throughout.) But soon we have Keira Knightly's character saying: "I'm not going to be home all day fixing (yes, fixing!) your lamb"!

The saddest thing is (is) that most people loved it and didn't even notice that the characters spoke in a modern, americanised way in the 1920s-1950s setting. Globalisation seems to mean americanisation, starting with English-speaking countries. Vive la French attitude to culture and language: they may hold out longer.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

In Our Time - more on Melvyn

 Might have to give IOT (In Our Time) more thought. It is an important programme and MB deserves a lot of praise, in my book, for what he does. But science and maths don't really work on radio - still, history next week. Thanks for trying.

So Desperate So

  Give credit to Melvyn Bragg - he tried. To kick off the new series of "In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4) he tackled "e" or "Euler's Number". And he had three women mathematicians on his panel. But it proved only one thing to me: you can't really do maths on radio. You need a black- or whiteboard at least.

 He bravely tried to pin them down as to what "the number represented by e" was. The more they tried to explain, the more they introduced new ideas, complexities and longer equations, which we couldn't follow on radio. To cover this, they used "So" more and more often, sounding more and more concerned, if not desperate, to get the idea across and to pretend to logical argument.

 But - aha! moment - what came out was that it is all a pretence. You have to pretend certain things for maths to work. 1/3 seems exact but you can't represent it in an exact decimal: 0.333 recurring for ever! Or any number to the power of zero is one - what? Not in the real world, but you need to pretend it is true for maths to work: remember Lewis Carroll's having to practise believing impossible things before breakfast, almost like his creed?

When I suggested at school that maths might be based on pretence, I got a clip round the ear and a detention. Bertrand Russel got awed praise and a university maths professor brought in for him as a private tutor!

 Still, well done Melvyn. You did your best.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Reading Allowed

  Reading and its university must be the venue for many conferences. If there was ever one for newsreaders, I think it should be there and could perhaps be called "Reading Aloud", or "Allowed" à la BBC R4's "Thinking Allowed". I put down the poor reading for sense, and particularly word stress, to reading aloud more or less being outlawed in schools.

Reading Geographies

  Just re-Reading my friend Michael Cullup's poetry collection, "Reading Geographies". It is excellent and should be more widely known. I hope, at the very least, that every library and bookshop in Berkshire will order copies. And then beyond, the world!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Reading Poetry Festival (well, what else?)

  My nicest English teacher at school had BA (Reading) after her name. Why haven't the others got that, too, I wondered? And I applied to go there - should have, probably - they had some good lecturers, I believe.

Recently on Twitter there have been a few jokes about it and about the Reading Poetry Festival. I thought of , affectionately, starting a hashtag #universityoflyingaboutalldaywithabook. Sounds good to me but could be taken the wrong way.

Sunday, 21 September 2014


  I was quite pleased with that new hashtag. But it was late at night, a dangerous time to tweet. Poets, and many artists, are notoriously severe critics of their peers, or their rivals, rather. Like batsmen in cricket, they usually want their teammates to be out, unless they are in a partnership with themselves at the time.

 So, I was commenting on the excoriating (that word is on promotional special offer this week) criticism on Twitter by poets of other poets. But be as coruscatingly witty as you like - I love it all, really.

#iCoruscati or #iCoruscanti - the public decide

  The Harry Hill solution would, of course, be "Fight!" But after our recent outburst of democracy (let's forget about some unruly scenes the next morning), the only way is a referendum. Which should it be? 'iCoruscanti' gets some of the idea of cognoscenti, an elite group of knowing people, but does 'iCoruscati' also suggest a nice Italian wine?

 I refer of course to the Twitterati (oh, that's where I got the idea) reaction to the Poet Laureate's Thistle poem.  I found it quite moving, if rather sentimental. But then I have, like a lot of people, mixed feelings and allegiances about the Scottish Independence vote, or #indyref.

 Or did I just find the "pilgrim Keats" lines moving? They seemed to me based on truth - Keats did make a sort of poetic pilgrimage to Burns' (Burns's?) cottage and then had to go home, very ill indeed. So, there seemed some truth there and beauty, too. Hence #TruthBeauty.

 But the Twitter reaction was very mixed, to put it mildly. A bit soppy but nice, with some very good bits, can't be bad for an official poem, can it? I wondered if the iPhone and Twitter make it difficult to be anything but clever and flip? Coruscatingly, sparklingly witty, perhaps but also sometimes unnecessarily flaying or excoriating? [Do these word still exist as separate, different things? Ed]

Monday, 15 September 2014

Transparency: a problem of our times

  I have posted previously about transparency and its problems. The excellent David Astle @dontattempt on Twitter asks 'Is a transparent an absent father?' Is transparency a problem of our Times - and other cryptics, I wondered?
(He is a crossword setter, which prompted my query.)

All an Illyism

  On my 'café crème for espresso' query, Lynne Murphy of the invaluable 'separatedbyacommonlanguage' blog / website tells me that it is definitely not an Americanism. Perhaps I should be careful not to attribute so many changes to US influence?

Following extensive research (or a quick look at Wiki), it now seems to me that the crème expression (ouch) was possibly from the early days of coffee-making machines and described the creamy or frothy appearance compared to that produced by previous methods. The phrase might have been more popular in Switzerland and, for a time, in Italy, perhaps in the 'crema' version. (But they call it espresso now, don't they, or just coffee?) And certainly in France it means more or less what the name suggests.

However, as the cafe in question was an Illy at Schiphol Airport this doesn't quite explain it. Illy is a long-established Italian company, although, as the name suggests, founded by a Romanian.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Past history

  When I get peevish about it, please remind me that some of my favourite writers use this expression. I'm reading "Master and Commander" for about the fourth time and find that early on, when Captain Aubrey is trying out his new command, the brig Sophie, he considers consulting her log to learn her "past history". This appears to be Patrick O'Brian's rather than Aubrey's phrase and I would like to change the paragraph slightly to make it seem like subtle characterisation: though JA was never less than a brilliant seaman, he was not always in total command of his words.

Lingeray, espresso and expertise

 In Holland recently we asked just for "two coffees", and got, as expected, two espressos. But on the bill it said "2 x café crème". I asked about it and the waitress told me "espresso is called that in French". I don't think so. I wondered if it might be another American usage and have asked the excellent @lynneguist* about it on Twitter. Also about AmE pronunciations of other French words: expertise and lingerie /-ay come to mind, for some reason.
*See also her blog "Separated by a Common Languge".

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Cake rising nicely

Michael Vaughan must have read our blog! Today he talked about England cricketers improving, like a cake rising consistently. I wonder if he's a baker.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Better batter

Been cooking today while cricket was on - wondered if the BBC TMS (Test Match Special cricket commentary) team know the difference between batter and batter. They certainly know their cake as they get so many donated but do they know that some are made with batter?

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Sentence First

 In my last post I neglected to put a link to Stan Carey's excellent blog, Sentence First. I was delighted to come across it some time ago - even the title was promising. "Sentence first. Verdict afterwards." I think that was it, but I'll check Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. There is so much thought-provoking stuff about language (Humpty Dumpty on verbs, anyone?) in Lewis Carroll - is it unusual for there to be a good connection between language and mathematics or science? Stan Carey is a scientist, I'm glad to say. There should be more interest across  these fields, shouldn't there? Comments, please.

Here's that link:


 The excellent Stan Carey (see Sentence First website and @StanCarey on Twitter) uses the term "fancyisms" for what I have called posh or pretentious words. He mentions "signage" when "signs" is what is meant. More when I think of some more.

Monday, 7 April 2014


 By the way, my transatlantic audience may not know what I meant by the heading "Simples-tic". It was meant to be playing on the UK TV commercial which uses, for some strange reason, Russian meerkats to advertise a price comparison website, "It's compare the markets, not meerkats - simples!" (or similar) was the catch phrase or slogan and for equally mysterious reasons this really did catch on. Why do some new language uses grab the public imagination and others don't? It's not simples.


 More on word inflation, hyping and perhaps pretentious or posh words later.


 I've mentioned what I call "word-inflation" before. Sometimes it is a case of extending words to make them sound more important: "transport" is lengthened to "transportation" (when it means transport around a city, not to a penal colony), or "methodology" is thought to sound more impressive than "method".

 In other cases a sort of hyping occurs. We used to say, for example, "We need to be clear", and maybe that was varied with "have clarity". Then someone sought to emphasise it by saying "crystal clear". Somewhere along the line this became commonplace or hackneyed and "transparently clear" began to be used, without really thinking of the meaning but just by a sort of inflation or, um, upgrade. Then we began to hear of the need for "transparency", "total transparency" and so on.

 No thought was probably given to the fact that totally transparent things are nearly invisible. If, for example, top bankers' salaries (or "compensation", presumably for doing such a noble, self-sacrificing job) and procedures are totally transparent they must be pretty hard to focus on, or even glimpse in outline.

 In sport, "giving a hundred per cent" sometimes just doesn't do it. You have to dig deeper and find that extra ten per cent you didn't know you had in you. But is that enough? Why only 110 or 200 or even a thousand per cent? So we have moved into the million per cent region now.

 In a similar way,  if "lucky" or "fortunate" is not impressive enough,  try "fortuitous" - it might make TV sports sound better or more worth spending your time on. Such things have happened with other words but, as with "unique", this inflation decreases their value. Last week I heard Sean Pollock, distinguished South African cricketer, say something was "a little bit unique". It clearly just means "rather unusual" now.

 And what about "simple"? It seems to be giving way to "simplistic", which according to my OED used to mean "characterised by extreme, excessive, or misleading simplicity".

 And please, don't even mention "fulsome".

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Other Englishes Are Available

 I mentioned that I got into trouble with some transatlantic commentators for querying whether it was "hockey" or "ice hockey" at the Sochi (Winter) Olympics. They accused me of being ignorant of North American English and of the context. In the end I had to say: "Only a joke, chaps, ok?" But there was a serious point lurking behind the cousinly (I hope) teasing - there are some Canadians and US-ans in our clan, after all. And in fairness I ought to add that I came in halfway on a conversation (as happens with Twitter) where my Canadian friend was pointing out that the Winter Olympics were not all about "hockey". I was sort of supporting this and pointing out, jokingly, that it was even true that other types of hockey were available. And indeed that perhaps the world looks different from India, or Malaysia or even the UK. (This was quite possibly partly the point he was making, but I had missed the start of the exchange.)

One more serious point was that we all tend to favour our own dialect - or favourite sport. But also that AmE is increasingly dominant and it could be argued the default dialect and therefore the most important. Speakers of other Englishes argue back and resist but know we are probably doomed. So, North Americans think "hockey" means "ice hockey" and if you want to talk about that obscure sport not played on ice you have to qualify it, adding "field". And it seems quite likely this will become true in due course. At the moment, though, guys / chaps, the IOC, and many of the official websites in the hockey-playing world disagree. Remember the millions of Indians and Pakistanis who consider it a national sport. But maybe soon they will all be trying newer, more technologically demanding sports, snowboarding and so on.

A similar thing is evident in printed and digital media: in the UK we used to think the Times was the Times. There might be others in New York (NYT) or indeed any town in the English-speaking world but the Times was "the Thunderer" and, it goes / went without saying, in London.

Now the Observer contains a European edition / supplement of the NYT every week. This (and perhaps increasingly the rest of the media) now refers to itself as "the Times". The poor old UK version will now have to be known as "the Times of London" and indeed refers to itself as such on Twitter and perhaps elsewhere. As with hockey, the minority (or is it non-North American) variety has to be qualified and explained, perhaps as something arcane or quaint, of minor interest. Inevitable perhaps, but annoying to us BrE speakers, not to mention millions on the sub-continent. NB other Englishes are still available - hurry while stocks last!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Oh, Spring! (from Unnecessary Apostrophes & Other Short Poems)

friday branches shred the air
monday a cloud of cherry blossom
springs long expected surprise

 I wrote this many years ago as a sort of jokey haiku. I know it doesn't follow the syllable count but then it's not Japanese. I revive it annually. It comes from a collection of my shorter poems that I call "Unnecessary Apostrophes". According to my New Shorter OED, "apostrophe" has several meanings including "omission of one or more letters" and "sudden exclamatory address".

Monday, 17 February 2014

Whom is attractive to women?

 There's been quite a lot online (see about men who use "whom" being more attractive, at least on dating sites. This still works, apparently, even if they use it questionably or unnecessarily - I'd better not say wrong, or wrongly. (I think it was specifically men seeming more attractive to women, rather than any other combination.)

On the other hand, David Marsh's book "For Who(m) the Bell Tolls" is selling very strongly and he thinks the word is in decline. He is the production editor of the Guardian and well worth following
@guardianstyle, even if this style guide is a bit extreme on avoiding capitalisation and on the silly bogus rule of "use that instead of which". I wonder if his influence is to be felt in the avoidance of
"whom" in both the Guardian and Observer?

There are lots of examples (like this ice hockey one from the Observer) where "which" is now used
for people, presumably in preference to the sensitive, pretentious, suspect or even dodgy (sexy?)
"whom": "... their successors in the Russian squad, around two-thirds of which play alongside their American rivals in the NHL ..."

By the way, I got told off by transatlantic tweeters for even suggesting that "hockey" could mean
another Olympic sport. But I am pretty sure (check out the websites, chaps) that it is still officially "ice hockey" (Winter Olympics) and "hockey" (Summer). The latter is the national sport of Pakistan and, with cricket, of India, the second most populous country on earth. But don't even mention it to a North American.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Trousers and skin - 50% off?

  I am often amused by sale signs like "Trousers 50% Off!" Can you choose which leg? A skin clinic near me had a special offer which I read as "Sale! Skin: 50% off!" Gosh, how do they do that? Those skin-eating fish? Apparently it is a chain called "Sk:n" - but still ...

By the by, in BrE we say "In the Sale" for a special Sale and "on sale" for normal times when goods are just for sale at normal prices. Or do we? Have we gone totally AmE in retail so that "On Sale" means in a special, reduced prices sale? Comments from my world-wide following, and indeed my UK follower, would be appreciated.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Very, Holmes.

 I mentioned that Holmes and Watson (or Doyle) have some usages which are still criticised as modern abuses or mistakes: "very unique" is one.

I had not noticed native speakers saying "very delicious" until relatively recently - but maybe I just hadn't noticed. On the other hand, I have commented on people saying "absolutely", which used to be one of the few modifiers used with these "ungradables",  with normal gradable adjectives: "That's absolutely important", for example.

But Holmes certainly says "very delighted", which seems similar (in "the Stockbroker's Clerk"). So, I will look out for other "modern horrors" from over a hundred years ago. I might even spot a "Yes, no, absolutely, Holmes!"

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Joy of ... punctuation

 In the couplet my last post I originally used a colon at the end of the first line. I then thought a semi-colon might be better as it is a continuation, rather than a summing up or consequence. I am still not sure and will have to give it some more thought, like the great Oscar taking all morning to remove a comma. Punctuation can be a pleasure. I am thinking of O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series and its lovely semicolons. No one is infallible, however, not even POB or his wife Mary, or his editors, come to that.

Pope bites back

 I sometimes get a bit grumpy when people are very quick to criticise but slow to thank or even acknowledge hints or suggestions. It is especially noticeable on Twitter, which seems to encourage brusque or even aggressive assertions. I thought I'd start a new hashtag for Pope-like squibs or comments. Alexander, I meant, not that other chap. But #Popisms was already taken, for things your Dad or Pop might say. So I had to go with the unwieldy #AlexanderPopisms. First one:

Quick to correct but to acknowledge loath;
A scholar would be happy to do both.

Sherlock's past history and the incident of the cap on the train

 I've often heard and read that Sherlock Holmes never wore a deerstalker cap, that it was an invention of the illustrators or film directors and so on. But in "Silver Blaze", the story with the incident of the dog in the night, Watson describes Holmes on the train to Tavistock "with his sharp, eager face framed in his flapped travelling cap..." So, perhaps it was not a great leap to a deerstalker, although that is a harder sort of hat, rather than a soft cap.

The new Sherlock TV series has made me revisit the stories with great pleasure. Is there any basis for making him out a modern man, or at least one ahead of his time? He certainly uses all the latest science available, at least if it is relevant to his interests. He has a subversive or transgressive streak and is heartless in his treatment of a female servant in Charles Augustus Milverton, in a similar way to Sherlock's treatment of the Irish PA in the TV series. And his (or Doyle's) language sometimes has a contemporary feel. I have already noted free play with ungradable adjectives, as in "very unique". Other usages which are now thought of as modern horrors are also in evidence, "past history", for example.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Muphry typos?

Is there a special name for typos in a post about correcting typos in the previous post?

Do do don't dey doh?

 Just typed "do do" for "do so" in my last Sherlock post. Makes me think of the Scousers in Harry Enfield's  TV show (was it?) and their catchphrase: "Dey do, doh, don't dey doh?"

Quite right, Sherlock

 Just re-reading the first Sherlock story, "A Study in Scarlet" (first published by Ward Lock in 1887), prompted to do so by the new, third series of "Sherlock" on BBC1. "The Sign of Four" was wittily alluded to in the second episode at Watson's wedding. Sherlock had deduced, before the doctor, that Mary was pregnant and vowed to be always there for "all three of you, sorry, both of you, miscounted!"

To return to the first story, in chapter three Sherlock asks Inspector Gregson if he has read the Van Jansen case of '34. "Read it up - you really should. There's nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before."

Often true in matters of language change, too, Holmes. Or, at least, most changes have been around longer than I first appreciate, as you showed me yesterday with your "very unique". And luckily there's always someone who can put me right  -  now through a science-fiction device called the iPad.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Maturin (slowly)

 I think that's enough on the introductory "so" but there is more to be said about what I think of as the Irish, or Hiberno-English (HibE) type. Patrick O'Brian, the English novelist (and lover of Ireland) provides many examples of this in the speech of Stephen Maturin, the Irish-Catalan surgeon, spy, zoologist, well, polymath(-ic?) co-hero. The period dialogue and dialects all seem perfect to me but I need to think about it and do some research. I must try not to bother @StanCarey too much, though he would know, so.  (Correct usage?)

So hwaet if it's been done already

 I've posted about "so" already, mainly about the introductory type. I speculated that it was often used by scientists (eg on "In Our Time" with Melvyn Bragg on BBC R4) to give the appearance of a connected, cohesive argument, even if it was (sometimes) the first answer that came to them, or even an irrelevant or new topic. This idea has rather been confirmed by this Slate podcast. It finishes with the suggestion that this use of introductory or sentence-initial "So" may have originated in Silicon Valley with computer programmers (not programers, surely, but why not, if the stress is on pro-?). Thanks again to the ever reliable and very well-informed @StanCarey for the link there. (Scaled back my fulsome praise.)

Very unique, Watson

  There's nothing you can blog (ok, post), that can't be blogged (posted).

I often think: "Why is no one else aware of these changes?" That's when I get bored or mystified looks from most people I know, including younger relatives.

So (or maybe I mean but) - then, as with my earlier post about "so", I often discover (usually as the result of links from the wonderful @StanCarey) that proper linguists have been discussing the word in question for years and that there are several research posts at US universities entirely devoted to it - maybe I exaggerate, but only slightly.

Anyway, amidst all the Sherlock mania, has anyone else noticed this quote from "The Norwood Builder" (published, according to my Penguin edition, in 1905)?

'"There are really several very unique features about this case, Watson," said he.'

Ok, nothing new there, then - or ahead of his time, if you prefer?